Lenawee Christian Builds on Historic Win

October 12, 2018

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

ADRIAN – Adrian Lenawee Christian gave a whole new meaning to Sweet 16 last week.

The Cougars and their roster of 16 strong won their biggest game in program history Friday, beating the No. 1 team in last week’s Associated Press Division 8 poll – Pittsford – to clinch a playoff berth and share of the Southern Central Athletic Association title.

It was the first time Lenawee Christian won a conference title and the first time the Cougars have qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back years.

“It was a big night,” Lenawee Christian head coach Bill Wilharms said. “It was senior night, parent’s night and our last (regular-season) home game. I’m just so excited for the kids. They’ve worked so hard. There were only 16 of them Friday, but they came to play.”

Lenawee Christian never trailed, although the game was tied briefly in the third quarter. The Cougars put up more than 400 yards of total offense against previously unbeaten Pittsford and a defense that had recorded two shutouts and allowed just five touchdowns all season.

Adam Baker, the Cougars’ starting quarterback, was sensational, throwing for 317 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for the game’s opening touchdown and picking up a team-best 70 yards on the ground. What was even more impressive, Wilharms said, was his junior signal-caller’s calling of the plays at the line of scrimmage.

“There were a couple of times where the play would happen, and I’d think to myself, ‘Okay, that was a good play. I don’t know what it was or where it came from, but, hey, it worked.’”

Baker said there were times when he got to the line of scrimmage and saw something different from the defense that warranted an audible.

“When I got to the line of scrimmage, if I saw something, I would just motion to my receivers or tell my line what to do,” Baker said. “I would signal something and change the play.”

It’s a credit to Wilharms and his staff that an experienced quarterback like Baker can make those adjustments on the fly.

“I think Coach has a lot of trust in our team to recognize the things that are happening out on the field,” Baker said. “He trusts us.”

Wilharms said Baker studies film and knows what he is doing.

“We’ve got a lot of things built into our run-pass option offense,” he said. “There are a lot of wrinkles. Adam does a great job of reading the defense. He made some fabulous reads. He went to his second or third option several times. It shows that he is a third-year quarterback.”

On the season, Baker has completed 95 of his 150 passing attempts for 1,289 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for 391 yards. One of his rushing attempts in particular ignited the LCS players and fans Friday night.

“We ran a sweep and Baker lowered his shoulder and got a few extra yards,” Wilharms said. “Plays like that are big for a football team.”

Lenawee Christians runs the spread offense with multiple looks and a deep crew of receivers. In the Pittsford game alone, Baker connected with seven receivers. Some teams go a full season without seven different players catching a pass.

“We’re trying to do some different things out of the spread,” Wilharms said. “As long as our line can give Baker time in the pocket, we can really sling it.”

The line that Baker operated behind Friday did a great job, especially considering senior Jack Leisenring, the team’s biggest player, was out with an injury.

“We have a sophomore that is about 210 and one of our freshman lineman is about 145,” Wilharms said. “The younger kids have really stepped up on the line. We try to do things to take advantage of their quickness because they don’t have a lot of size. Our kids came to play against Pittsford, who is a tough, physical team. They knew they were going to get hit, but they took it on.”

The SCAA has just four teams – Pittsford, Climax-Scotts, Athens and LCS. Climax-Scotts has committed to 8-player football next year while LCS was undecided until this month, when it informed the other SCAA schools it will maintain an 11-player team in 2019. The middle school and junior varsity Cougars already play 8-player, but Wilharms said he believes the numbers will support an 11-player team at least one more season.

“We only have three seniors and a big junior class,” he said. “If we keep who we have, we should be okay. Scheduling might be tough. We will probably have to hit the road to find teams.”

But no one is thinking about next year yet. Lenawee Christian is among the top-five ranked teams in Division 8, and the Cougars could land the first home playoff game in school history. They will travel tonight to play at Blanchard Montabella, and the Oct. 19 game against Detroit Universal Academy will go into the books as a forfeit win. The Cougars have never won a playoff game.

Baker said the team got excited after its win Friday, but he and his teammates know they still have work to do.

“I mean, sure we beat the No. 1-ranked team in the state, but there is always room for improvement,” he said. “You can always get better. That’s what we did when we went back to practice on Monday, just worked and worked to try and get better for this week.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian quarterback Adam Baker follows his blocker during last week’s win over Pittsford. (Middle) Cougars coach Bill Wilharms checks out his play chart. (Photos by Stacy Kline.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)